Starlight, Star Bright

Starlight, Star Bright

By Christian Toews
From the June 2020 Biskinik

When was the last time you looked up at the stars? Not just a glance up to remember they exist, but when you paused and had a long, contemplative look at the stars? For most people it has probably been a while. With the speed of our lives these days, we barely have time to pause and eat, much less be introspective. For our ancestors, stargazing was a regular occurrence. Early texts from around the world reveal that people spent a lot of time searching the stars for meaning, inspiration, comfort and beauty. The Bible even tells the story of shepherds following a star to the location where they found Jesus.

Our modern relationship with the night sky is a bit less dramatic. Many of us have seen the stars, but perhaps not to the extent our forefathers saw them. With the invention of the lightbulb, our relationship with the night sky became, well, dim. Sure, we are more productive because we have been able to work later into the night. We’ve had more fun because we no longer have to rely on daylight to play sports and games. But has all of this convenience come at a cost to our relationship with nature?

Oklahoma might be the last place on your mind when you think of stargazing. In Texas they sing, “The stars at night are big and bright,” and in Oklahoma we sing, “Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.” But there is much more to Oklahoma than plains and wind.

Within the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma lie some of the best dark skies in the eastern half of the United States. Between Nashoba and Smithville there is a stretch of Oklahoma that is almost untouched by light pollution.

Sunrise meets the night sky just outside of Nashoba, Okla
The first colors of sunrise on the horizon meet the night sky just outside of Nashoba, Okla. Dark skies provide unique opportunity in Southeastern Okla.

John Bortle worked to develop a way to map and classify how well the sky can be seen on a clear moonless night. The Bortle scale ranges from 1 (pristine, dark skies with less than 1% of the brightness of the sky coming from the ground) to 9 (more than 2700% of the sky’s total brightness coming from the ground). According to skyandtelescope.com, where the Bortle scale was first published, the most heavily light-polluted areas like New York, Rome, Paris and Chicago might reduce what you can see to only the brightest 10-or-20 stars, even on a pristine, clear night. The area in Oklahoma including Nashoba and Smithville is classified as level 2 skies on the Bortle scale. That means, on a clear and moonless night, the summer Milky Way is highly structured to the unaided eye.

Light pollution doesn’t only make stargazing difficult. It also has an impact on the ecosystems around us. According to the International Dark Sky Association, a natural night sky signals when to eat, sleep, hunt, migrate and even when to reproduce for many animals. It is estimated that half of all life on earth start their “daily” activities at sundown.

Humans are also affected by light pollution. In a recent Harvard study, it was noted that even dim light can interfere with a person’s circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion. “A mere eight lux—a level of brightness exceeded by most table lamps and about twice that of a night light—has an effect,” noted Stephen Lockley, a Harvard sleep researcher.

According to the International Dark Sky Association, exposure to blue light at night is particularly harmful, and more lights are trending toward blue. Most LEDs used for outdoor lighting, as well as computer screens, TVs and other electronic displays create abundant blue light.

As the natural day and night rhythm continues to be interrupted by artificial light, one of the most unfortunate effects of this interruption is that there are so many people who have never seen certain stars, constellations or even the Milky Way, our own galaxy.

A New York Times article described a 1994 earthquake that shook the Los Angeles area around 4:30 in the morning. The quake was very strong and knocked out the power to the area. Naturally, people gathered outside their homes during the quake and residents reportedly called various emergency centers to report a mysterious cloud overhead. The cloud was the Milky Way galaxy which had been obscured from view by the artificial lights.

While we cannot shut off the city lights across the country, we can escape to areas with less light pollution to show ourselves and our children the beauty above us.

Babak Tafreshi is an astrophotographer and science journalist whose work has been featured in National Geographic as well as many other publications. When talking about light pollution, he offered some hope, saying, “Truly dark skies are possible to experience thanks to a growing number of preserved dark sky places and a rising branch of ecotourism called astrotourism, which is emerging in areas with existing ecotourism infrastructure, with natural dark skies, that are far from cities and major light pollution sources.”

As Tafreshi mentioned, ecotourism is a big factor in preserving untouched landscapes around the world, as well as right here in Oklahoma. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.”

Choctaw Nation Capitol Museum & Cultural Center
The Choctaw Nation Capitol Museum & Cultural Center with a stary sky located in Tuskahoma, Okla.

Tourism is a huge industry, and many places in Oklahoma see visitors from around the world. Ecotourism advocates for conscious, sustainable travel to these areas. In other words, to leave them in a similar state to what our ancestors saw. Astrotourism asks us as a society to be conscious of our impact on the night sky. We can preserve areas of the country where people can escape the city lights and see the natural night sky in all its glory. “A truly dark night sky can change someone’s life forever,” said Tafreshi.

The area between Nashoba and Smithville is one of the best places to view the Milky Way, but it’s not the only place to see great views of the night sky within the Choctaw Nation. McGee Creek State Park and the area surrounding it just outside of Atoka have fantastic night sky viewing. While this area is a level 3 on the Bortle scale, it is shielded from surrounding city light by the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. This makes the stargazing wonderful.

If you travel around 90 miles northeast of McGee Creek, you’ll find Robbers Cave State Park. This park is famous for the cave that was used as a hideout for outlaws Jesse James and Belle Starr. A level 3 on the Bortle scale, the park is also a great place to see the night sky.

Both McGee Creek State Park and Robbers Cave State Park offer camping and recreational activities. They are great locations to camp, stargaze and connect with our natural world.

Let’s face it – our lives are busy and bright. They are full of screen time at work and at home. It has become easier to be in the same room with someone and not be present. To be in the same city, state, country, world and galaxy and take it all for granted. We are surrounded by a never-ending universe, and we can still catch a glimpse of infinity by looking up at night. So, plan a trip. Whether that trip is to your backyard, down the street, Robbers Cave or across the country. Don’t miss the opportunity to sit on your tailgate, a blanket, or a grassy field and look up at the stars.

If you are interested in seeing where the darkest skies are located in Oklahoma, visit lightpollutionmap.info. This allows you to search near your location to see where the best stargazing areas are for you.